Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Actions speak louder than words

Let's just spare a moment shall we and think of all the editors, researchers putting together those end of year 'who we've lost lists'? Just when they sit back down to spend time with their families, another 'national treasure' or 'icon' appears to die - so back they go to the editing suite, no doubt to make everyone else's moment a little shorter in order to fit in one more well lived life.

Being Welsh I tend to have a very matter of fact way about looking at death. You're either here or you're not - simple. If you go, I'm grateful for having known you, and grateful for all that you added to my life.  Of course with close loved ones the pain is immeasurable for months, even years - but like all of life's scars, they heal over, making you a bit tougher in the process.

When Diana died in 1997, for the first time in my memory, we saw a collective, public outpouring of grief never before seen in this country.  For the Royalists, my generation had never experienced another Royal death, and I suspect that nobody had experienced a death so 'complicated' as Diana's . . . ever. From the People's Princess, to establishment outcast - her level of celebrity hit a new high.

Even further back in the 80's we witnessed far too many deaths for those too young to die. AIDS robbed the world of so many talents, we had almost become immune to death altogether.  Of course the fans cried, the fans laid flowers - but there was also a section of society who (wrongly) believed that these deaths were of their own doing.  Had they been 'straight' they would have been alive (of course these ignorant statements can be debunked in a second when you look at the evidence) So when half the world grieved, another half seemed to hold back with a religious fervour, refusing to mourn these 'self fulfilling prophesies'.

Diana though bridged that gap. The irony can't be lost that she was one of the first people to publicly break the taboo and misplaced shame of AIDS, when she simply 'touched' an AIDS victim - she had sent out a clear message to everyone that AIDS was just that, the name of a ravishing, cruel illness  - not some sort of plague of leprosy sent down to  wipe out the sinners!

Back then there was no reliable social media, or at least, no reliable way to get onto it if there was.  By the time you finished hearing that dial up tone, you felt like you had died, or your 'grief' had certainly subsided a bit. So we were all glued to the screens, as the main channels (and don't forget there that were only 5 then . . . 5 didn't count as no-one really watched it, and 4 was out simply because you watched major events on BBC1 or ITV.  A few people had their Sky subscriptions but it wasn't really 'a thing').

So what's changed? Are we losing too many too soon? Well yes and no really, but there are so many social and economic factors to keep in mind. Let's look at the 'easy' ones first. The young ones 'taken too early' by cancer or some other hideous disease. There's long been a conspiracy theory that cancer could be cured, but the pharmaceutical companies couldn't afford for that to happen. Whilst the theory can be picked apart I'm sure, it feels to me a little like the 'why don't all the main car manufacturers make a reliable electric car?' Well our economy is driven by gold and oil . . . you can see where I'm heading?

So for me this is where my Welshness kicks in. Yes it's sad, yes it's unfair, yes I know a whole load of other people that I would have preferred to have suffered in this way. . . however the circle of life must be concluded.

Maybe that's why all these deaths are really hitting us so hard in 2016? We appear to have supported the rise of some of the most ridiculous, dangerous and narcissistic  political figures in decades. Many of whom we feel like we woudn't miss, but all of whom appear to be missing the grim reaper, who instead goes somewhere that that takes a bit more 'joy' out of our lives. . . or at least seems to.

Many (not all) of the young ones that are dying have lived lives of great excesses, sometimes through addiction/mental illness.  We've forgotten many of the stories now (although the media are desperately attempting to remind us) - but I suspect in 'real years' they were actually much older than we realise.  You can't spend decades with drug and alcohol addictions and then be surprised when your vital organs have been worn out a bit quicker than you were expecting.  However if you look at the list you are kind of left thinking 'but when you were alive you really lived'

Finally there are the elderly who have lived to amazing ages. So can we really scream in defiance when an octogenarian dies? Hell they've had it all and seen it all.  In most professions people retired at 65 and go and 'graze in a field'. In our profession actors celebrate making that age, knowing that they've just hit a new casting bracket, so the work never dries up.  We remain in the public conscience as the elder statesman, still honing their craft.

However social media and rolling news channels mean that every death is amplified within our own echo chamber. The deaths somehow feel more catastrophic. There are the people who report every death like some contemporary town crier. There are those who are desperate to be 'close to the death' - so relate stories about how they once went shopping in the same supermarket as those people, therefore giving them an 'unique' position to vent their grief.  Suddenly 'a nation' mourns, whilst the news regurgitates the same old clippings of them, or plays on a loop the words of grief of our nation's other treasures. Whilst speculating widely on the cause of death, in order to give us an understanding, and give us a closure maybe?

The other night  I was incensed watching the news of George Michael breaking through. Firstly because once you've made the statement that someone has died, there's a full stop really. Where else is there to go with that (I appreciate that this is the Welsh in me though. . . and that they have to keep repeating it for 'those people just joining them')? However on this particular 'event' the reporting was appalling. The endless passive words of blatant homophobia being reported on, the utter lack of understanding of mental illness, self medication and addiction.  I felt like the world had taken a few steps back.  For any of you that follow my tweets (either my personal account @ALThomasMT or my 'work' account @theMTAonline) you would have sensed my annoyance and anger as several times I felt compelled to pick up my phone and ask them what the hell they were doing?

However there you have it don't you? Suddenly the death of someone not known to me, but someone that I can admire, has prompted me to 'tell the world' how incensed I am about a channel's reporting of the death. I can spew my viewpoint out to all that can be bothered to hear it.  I have entered the echo chamber.

Last night I was incensed by all those people celebrating the advocacy work that Carrie Fisher had undertaken to remove the stigma around mental health.  The tweets were eloquent, many hoping that they'd 'caught' the wave, and might even get a bit of a viral RT going.  Yet those same people who were loudly shouting about removing the stigma of mental health last night, were the same people that I had approached to join #time4change - and who had rebuffed the idea with various retorts. That stigma was too real to actually DO something. . . but it was OK to poke it with a far reaching stick to make sure that their followers thought that they actually cared about it!

Then in amongst all of this 'noise' is a family. A family that we don't know, who are the real mourners in the tale. I wonder what it must feel like to share your personal grief with millions? Are you touched that your loved one was revered and indeed appreciated by so many, do you just not notice it as you look inwards for strength from your loved ones - or do you wish that the rest of us would just go away and leave you to come to terms with your very real, very personal loss?

This phenomenon is only going to get worse, as we all cross lines that were put down for a reason. Personal space is ever harder to find - but find it you must.  The end of the world is not nigh if we all stick together and look after each other - but that includes actions not just words.

Thursday, 15 December 2016

Mystic Meg

So this time last year I wrote: all about my Christmas wish, that we, as an industry, could learn to look after ourselves.  I asked that we would acknowledge that Mental Health was a major issue in the performing arts sector.  We launched the #time4change conference, giving people 3 months to get that date in their diary.

I guess the rest has become history. . . a somewhat chequered history but history nevertheless. The conference didn't get the support that we would have hoped for, in spite of various conversations which led us to believe that it would. However it did prompt us into launching the #time4change Mental Health Charter. An initiative that over 100 organisations are currently signed up to. A charter that we categorically know has made an impact throughout the performing arts industry.

We still need more people to sign up, but for a while I need to concentrate on running a college.  In the meantime, the writer of the Charter, Angie Peake, is giving ongoing (free) support to those people that have signed up, needing additional support to implement it.

I think a rather sad by product of the Charter is how jaded it's made me of certain organisations and of people in general. Organisations who decide to put petty politics before the greater good. Petty politics I should add that are entirely one sided. Suddenly Mental Health became competitive? What the hell is that about? Colleges refusing to sign up to the charter as they perceive it to be an initiative from another college. Somehow they missed the lesson that clearly stated that every 'movement' has to start somewhere - but then the momentum of change comes from the proactive masses. Or what about the ones 'already doing it'? If you're doing it . . . sign up and let's get some consistency throughout the sector then. Add your voice and experience to the 'movement'. Pop down from your ivory tower and teach us all what your experience has taught you so that we can all put that into practice.

It was only the other week that a basic thing dawned on me. I keep speaking about the 1 in 3 of our industry being susceptible to mental health issues - forgetting of course that this INCLUDES the very people that I'm trying to engage with.  I have to say that that realisation made me slightly less resentful about some of the vitriol I've been subjected to this year!

In fairness though I'm not just talking about the Charter. This year has seen such political upheaval across the world, and yet we have social media activists who believe that writing a constant flow of vitriol will solve the problem? I'm sorry but get off your backsides and DO something. Don't just plan to stand in Trafalgar Square with a load of other 'activists' thinking that shouting about the problem will make things better - it won't.  We need solution focussed thinking - not idealistic Utopian dreams (yes, I am saying that Corbyn will never get into power)

Every Tom, Dick and bloody Harry appear to be making a 'statement' about drama training being so expensive and becoming elitist - but what are they DOING about it.  On your twitter feeds and timelines you all agree, you bemoan the latest government, but are you donating some of your money to help out? Are you donating your time to help out? Why not make a statement about how we solve this mess instead of just nodding loudly (an interesting phrase. . . but social media somehow allows us to do this)

ALW shouts that we need more diversity in the arts, we ALL agree (or at least should do).  However this is a complex subject, and the answer lies right back at primary school level, as this is when a load of us decided to do this for a living. Then the next solution comes in secondary school when potential BAME performers AND their families need to know that this career is an option.  It's no good bleating about it on the West End stage - the problem is endemic in society and in certain cultures BUT we could change that with education. I would suggest though that everybody making a statement about how elitist the arts is ain't helping any struggling wannabes persuade their parents that this could provide them with a sustainable career!

Then there are amazing people who pull me back from the brink of exasperation. People who are running marathons, donating time, donating money, donating 'ideas' all for the greater good. Yet we don't listen to their understated voices so much do we - as they're not shouting about themselves.

We have people that are literally donating the price of a coffee to The MTA every month.  Those smaller donations for a college like ours become a life line. We're not LAMDA, able to raise £300k to ensure that 'everybody' gets a chance to train. However just 20 people donating £20/month would support 1 student a year who's already in receipt of a CDL.

I've met tutors from other colleges who are busting a gut trying to get the mental health package right. I've met with Principals, brave enough to say that they are sinking under the deluge of struggling students, which enables us to think with them about what 'we' can do to make a difference.  I've spoken with counsellors swimming against the tide of ever expanding colleges, where the management have given no consideration to student welfare.  Again though #time4change has enabled us to throw out life rafts to each other, so as one goes under, the rest can help pull them out. . . for now.  This is indeed an ongoing issue, but there are people prepared to stay open minded, give the initiative a go, and together we CAN and indeed WILL make a difference.

Finally, and this is my biggest revelation of the year - I've realised that I've officially become Mystic Meg! No really. . . look at the evidence.  For around 3 years I've been saying that Drama UK was a drain on resources to those 'in the club' providing nothing more than a name for people to bandy around. A name that was meaning less and less. Then Eureka this year it folds.  Hopefully it folded returning the £6k that the remaining colleges had paid into its coffers over the past year.  Hopefully soon it will finally do the decent thing and take down its website, which interestingly fails to mention that the organisation no longer exists.

I've said forever that Mental Health is an issue in our industry, and now finally, empirical evidence is being presented around the world categorically proving my hypothesis.

I've been speaking for years about the need for the training industry to become transparent. The Stage cottoned onto this a few years back, and just this week another blog was written about it. We're currently an industry relying on a reputation that's based on history and soundbites. Surely it's time for facts - especially now that people can't wave their Drama UK certificate in the air?

Procrastinate at will through the blogs of the year and then cross reference them to 'events' of the year - I am nailing these predications though.

Of course in reality we all know all of these things - but we don't chose to name them.  I opted rather consciously when I opened the college to pop my head over that parapet (as I did it in private often enough). The simple joy of being self employed is that you don't have to answer to anyone. You haven't got anyone telling you to wind your neck in.  We've just got to hope and pray that common sense prevails and an edit button is used every so often (a lesson that I'm still attempting to learn)

Merry Christmas - here's to a happy, healthy and PROACTIVE New Year - and thanks for reading my constant streams of consciousness.

Thursday, 1 December 2016

Life's a piece of sh*t

Following on from my last blog when I was discussing the merits of lying, I ended up touching upon the farce known as the IICSA.

However at the same time another child sex abuse scandal was brewing when footballer Andy Woodward waived his right to anonymity to reveal that he, and to his knowledge, some other professional footballers had been sexually abused by football coach Barry Bennell.  Bennell is a convicted paedophile, originally sentenced to nine years in 1998 after admitting sexual offences against six boys.  Since then he's been jailed a further twice.  In his own words he's described himself as a monster.

The scandal is slowly unravelling as more and more brave men are going public with their stories. Of course, with the unravelling comes more accusations, more coaches are being accused.  A helpline set up to deal with the situation said that they had received 860 calls in the first week. In the first three days alone they had 60 calls.

We live in remarkable times, in times that I for one, never thought I'd see.  I feel like the world is going backwards. As the far right march forward, and with the left literally just popping up their hands every so often as if to say excuse me, it feels like civilisation as we know it could go absolutely anywhere right now.

However there has also been, and sadly there will probably always be a constant - and that is child sex abuse. It's gone on forever....and will not doubt continue to go on, as it's just part of the depraved bit of human nature.  We can only hope that with each passing year, more and more survivors, and indeed the perpetrators, get the help that they need.

What really hacks me off though about all of this is twofold:
1) When it was all the revelations of women being abused, the media (both 'social' and real) all really questioned the validity of the women stepping forward.  Why now? Were they money grabbing? Fame hungry? The questions were relentless. One false witness out of hundred truthful ones and the 'I told you sos' were flying through the air.  Easier to focus on it not happening that it really going on obviously? I mean if I said that there was a 99% chance of you being OK after an operation, you'd probably go for it wouldn't you? You wouldn't ponder the 1% for too long. Yet when the percentage of allegations proved to be truthful, everyone jumped on the tiny percentage of deluded liars, trying to jump on a band wagon.   It's not even child sex abuse that this happens with. What about the rapist in the states that got an easier sentence because he was good at sports? Donald Trump has allegations coming out of his slimy ears - but it's easier to dismiss all the women as liars and opportunistic isn't it?   Why is that? As each professional footballer has stepped forward he's been instantly believed? Maybe one of them is trying it on? Jumping on the band wagon? Of course that can't be right. . . yet the only difference is gender.
2) When oh when are people going to stop being surprised that it takes survivors years (if ever) to talk about it. Every time this topic comes up I read some comment or another about 'why didn't they say sooner'? I mean what the hell is wrong with people?  On one hand I'm delighted that their life has been so rosy, and they are surrounded by people skipping and dancing through the daisy patch of life without a care in the world. Maybe I'm jealous, because in my world, as a teacher I've heard the same old story for decades.  I've heard my friends' stories.  I've seen how painful it is for somebody to say those words.  I've seen the emotional turmoil, low self esteem that child sex abuse leaves them with. I've sat as a student's had a flashback and seen the pain etched on their face.
Why didn't they say sooner. . . because they couldn't. Because people like you, the people that don't want to leave the Daisy field, have missed the fact that the flowers are blooming because they've been covered with manure.  Any whiff of that nonsense and you're out of there. You just want to believe that life can't be that bad.

Experts believe that we're only hitting the tip of the iceberg with child sex abuse. They also believe that we don't have the resources available to us right now to deal with the fall out.

Maybe they should simply move to another Daisy patch, and forget about what actually makes life real.

We should be celebrating ALL the brave survivors who chose to speak out. We should attempt to understand WHY people take so long....and then just celebrate the fact that they did it at all.